The acorn of sadness
Short Story Prize

Runner-up VU Short Story Prize: The acorn of sadness

Ainsley stares into the mirror, pours herself into her eyes, there is no tear yet but soon there will be. [Best Newcomer: Television Drama!] Parts her lips. Does shocked-scared followed immediately by tortured-brave. Then her mother shows up, how’d she get in? Poor old mum, holding yet another scarf. But no, mum. Not the time. You get out. I’m doing sad. Ains holds her own gaze. It’s the beauty that gets her, these eyes are really pretty, she widens them, lets in a little air. Sure enough, there’s the prick – it’s coming, here it comes. Ainsley does resigned-evolved then survivor-star. Tilts her head left, right, left, just so. Here comes the itch, a sincere sting. Ainsley blinks once and down it rolls: one juicy, home-cooked tear.

Breaking from the scene Ainsley gives a hoot. [Best New Talent: Television Mini-Series!] She pumps her fist in the air, cheering. Often, she does cheer. Mostly when no one is watching but sometimes even when they are.

Now Job 7 – to the bin. Ainsley leaps down the stairs. Out the door on to the porch, where Dad’s box of stuff waits. Could be today, thinks Ainsley, and in that case – the note! Pirouette and back upstairs. Note from under her Tempur Symphony pillow (fragranced with Tom Ford Neroli Portofino Eau de Parfum – honeymoon gift from Dad + Jeri), back downstairs, to the front porch and to the box. Ainsley slips the note where Dad can’t miss: in between his John Boos Cathedral 7 chopping board and his best kitchen knife, the white steel Tsukasa Kurouchi wand. How’d he leave that behind? Silly-billy daddy-o, thinks Ainsley as she skips-tip-toes down the drive. So distracted, what with divorce (again) and marriage (again) and Most Popular Reality Tee-Vee Host (again times five!). So sweet of him to buy this townhouse for Ainsley and mum. Nice little patch. Sure it’s no Point Piper, thinks Ainsley, as she takes the handle of the bin and starts back up the drive. But Dad and Jeri were mid-honeymoon in far-off Gozo when the divorce papers came through. Footsteps of Jolie-Pitts; shame Ainsley couldn’t go. Well she would have if she’d known – hi Ange! Hi Brad and all you kids!

Well something about the Jolie-Pitts and something about bringing in the bin makes Ainsley feel sad. Not exactly sad, not real sad. Just weird-rushing sad. Like that rush like when a weird wind comes, sunny day, you’re at the beach. It’s hot and nice, and this wind comes up, pricks your skin, goose bumps galore, suns comes out yeah, once again, but you’re left with a thing. Sort of hard, sort of round. Sort of hurting and dark. Sort of nutty. Like extremely sort of ancient or some such! Ainsley gets a super chill from this, and then she cheers. Don’t win any prizes, Ainsley thinks, for being Negative Nance. And under her breath, as she rolls the bin up the drive, she erases slight wave of weird sad feeling + extremely hard darkish nuttish pain vis-a-vis healing power of affirmations: I Radiate Beauty, Charm And Grace! I Am Brimming With Love And Overflowing With Joy! I Have Been Given Endless Gifts With Which I Can Control My Fate! I Manifest My Success, Every Moment, Every Day!

Paul – fresh from the clinic, cotton-balling it at Ma’s – watches the kid doing fist-pumps up the drive. He lights his menthol, takes a drag. It’s quite a feat, she’s actually dragging the bin up in one hand, doing fist-pumps with the other, also doing a kind of a tip-toe thing while also possibly singing? Half-naked, by the way. What is she, thinks Paul, fourteen years old? Sure, she’s pretty. In that knife-edge way those types of girls are. Plenty of those girls in the clinic – beings all sucked out, girls cut right down to size, girls worn out. But no judgement, from Paul. Why would he? No way. He’s a guy (spade-a-spade) who now spends whole weeks of his life in fluffy slippers from Kmart watching re-runs of cooking shows. Just to stay on the straight and narrow; just to fend off Pauly-Boy. And, embarrassingly, given Ma’s new neighbours, not just any reruns of any old cooking show: reruns of Andrew Bordacelli’s Extremely Awesome Cooking Show: Celebrities Stuff Stuff (series four).

Just watching the kid, in comes the shame. No no no, thinks Paul. Keep back, you fuck off. All in the past, thinks Paul, that was dealt with in Group. Continuing to be dealt with in therapy, with Grange. Paul reads the warning signs, he’s learned that much at least: pinch in gut, ring in ears, thump in chest, on its way. Stops it in time: in for two, out for three. Paul reminds himself of the facts. Number one: I didn’t do it. Number two: I was only a kid. Number three: if Tim Liddle necks himself, five days after the thing, that’s not your fault, you didn’t do it, you only heard it, you were just there. In for two, out for three. Plus, thinks Paul, I’m doing well, follow rules. 8 am – get up. Smoke. Shower. Smoke. 8.30 am – sit butt on lounge, stay there til dark. 5.30 pm – Ma comes home, help Ma in kitchen. Eat. Smoke. Talk to Ma. Be nice. Don’t be shit. Go to bed. No device. No outside world. No contact at all with Tucker or the other guys. Just cigarettes and tele and coffee and Ma in the evenings, over tea. Grange on Tuesdays. Re-cov-er-y. A simple life. A life where, groundbreaking event in day equals Dumped Daughter of Celebrity Chef Brings In Garbage Bin (fact-o-fact). Paul drops his head to his knees, smokes again. Watches an ant crawl up down across up down his brand new fluffy slippers, baby blue. (Thanks, Ma.)


Paul looks up. The kid’s standing over on her front porch, rocking from her heels up onto the balls of her feet, looking just like her slime-ball old man. (Famous this week for what, Paul thinks, strawberry-stuffed gluten-free pork floss macaroons?) Holding her gaze like this, Paul feels the nut, the acorn, the hard round-cornered gap, the freaking sadness.


‘Oh! Hullo!’ says the kid, waving at him, and then waving her hand in circles, at the ground. ‘Yes! Can you – please – not, like, touch this stuff?’

Paul stands up, strains to see what the kid’s talking about. Looks like there’s a cardboard box on the front porch by her feet, packed with stuff, maybe wine? Maybe some delivery this kid’s too fine to heave-ho inside?

‘My dad’s coming to pick it up,’ says the kid. ‘Maybe, possibly, today.’

That kind of head tilt, thinks Paul, just begs of everything that’s wrong with the world. Every lie.

‘Okay,’ says Paul.

‘So don’t, like, touch it?’ says the kid. ‘Yes?’

‘Yeah,’ says Paul. ‘No worries.’

‘Thank you,’ says the kid. ‘Many thanks – great, great day!’

Paul takes a deep drag on his menthol as the kid goes inside. The smoke does not even close reach the spot, where that nothing hole lives, dense black space, dark dark shame.

Inside Ma’s place, on the lounge, Paul presses play on Andrew Bordacelli’s Extremely Awesome Cooking Show: Celebrities Stuff Stuff (series four, episode three). Zones out watching celebrities like ex-porn star Jericho Green and capybara whisperer Freeman Keppell battle it out in extremely tense food-stuffing challenges. Paul is genuinely captivated as Andrew Bordacelli demonstrates to the contestants his incredible skill for stuffing: inside a single whole snapper he fits a tennis shoe poached in garlic and lemon puree, a three-pound live piglet, and a maraschino cherry. When the stuffed fish emerges from the oven it’s Jericho’s privilege to try it, having just taken out the Immunity Challenge. The way the host feeds the fish to the contestant is pretty sleazy and as Paul skips through the ads he thinks really it’s pretty obvious those two are fucking. Not just now, as husband and wife. But then, from the start. Balls, thinks Paul, when the show comes back on. Takes balls to nick a girl like that out of the arms of a guy like Dommy (Slaughterhouse) King.


Back in the bathroom time for a practice pash? No, not quite. Plus also glass a bit too cold this time of year. Time for warm tiles. Ainsley flicks the switch to heat up the bathroom floor. Back to mirror: what a winner! Looks pretty darn cute. Skirt not on yet, but stockings are. Nice tight black tights. Nice white shirt. Crisp. Tum so flat, thinks Ainsley – thanks Maj/Paj for killer abs, decent legs and cute not-too-big bott. Facing the mirror, Ainsley turns away. Turns back. Eyes cast a little down. Does over-the-shoulder gaze #24. [Best Leading Actress: Arthouse Foreign Film!]

Ainsley brushes her teeth. Nearly done all her jobs. Mum’s still at the ‘retreat’ but Ainsley can look after herself.

  1. Washing in
  2. Rest of Dad’s stuff in box
  3. Box on porch in case Dad doesn’t have time to come in (but door open just in the case that Dad does)
  4. Half-dressed for school
  5. Write love letter to Dad
  6. Half face on plus one tear if poss
  7. Bin in
  8. Brush Teeth
  9. Full face on/dressed for school
  10. Depart for Completely Enlightening Winning Day at School!

Ainsley spits. Checks out her white teeth. Tiles so warm now under her feet, celebrates with good pirouette. Post spin, a little wobbly. Opens drawer (hi mascara!), closes drawer, twists the wand. Leans into mirror, deep into her eyes, thick black lashes, what’s that by right ear? Ainsley turns: what the frig?

Extremely big guy, top of stairs. Extremely large. Holding gun.

Ainsley does shocked-scared followed by shocked-paralysed, just on instinct. Guy looks familiar, voice familiar, too, when he directs:

‘Okay, move. Little bitch. Move. Now. Over here.’

But Ainsley doesn’t move. Guy comes up real close. Presses gun hard-ish into the subtle curve of Ainsley’s warm back; still no good. Feet are pinned. To the floor. Warm tiles; getting hot. So guy raises gun. Smacks it sharp clean across Ainsley’s face. Now Ainsley screams. Now her legs move. Move her right where he directs. To her room.

Well could that be right? What she sees on the bed?

An industrial-sized roll of tin foil. A box of garlic, ginger too. Dozen lemons in a blue net bag. One tennis shoe. Rock salt, three kinds of pepper, a pound of butter, pack of cherries. Twine. One or two knives, just lying there. And a piglet, cute as pie, all curled up sleeping, on Ainsley’s pillow.


From the warm curve of Ma’s lounge Paul hears a scream. It’s a single, certain, high-pitched scream. And then it’s gone. Gone just like that. Here, then, and now it’s not. Well not, exactly, not. That kind of scream doesn’t just go away. Paul knows that. That kind of scream, from someone else’s throat, that kind of scream only moves its location. Here it is in Paul’s own throat, here it is in his gut.

Paul sits very still. He thinks what to do. No no no, do not think, thinks Paul. Just sit still and wait.

‘But that’s what you did before,’ says Pauly-Boy. ‘Remember then at school?’

‘You stop right there,’ says Paul. ‘Go back, fuck right off. Go back. Go away. I’ve got this sorted. Fuck fuck off.’

‘I’m just saying,’ says Pauly-Boy, ‘that you’ve been here before.’

‘I was a kid,’ says Paul. ‘That’s in the past. You know what Grange says, it doesn’t pay.’

‘Doesn’t pay,’ leers Pauly-Boy, ‘to think of what you did?’

He stands up and struts. Scoffs. Touches stuff.

‘Leave that alone,’ says Paul. Draws his knees up to his chin. ‘Don’t do this now, please, it’s not the time. Someone screamed?’


Well this, Ainsley so did not see coming. First of all, a sticky blow. Sticky? Ah yes. And definitely sticky. And definitely, she thinks, in the head. What’s this, then, now? She looks up. Guy is there, he spreads her legs, in his hands: a yellow fruit.


On the screen the bodies move but Paul can’t hear a thing. The teeth still gleam. The skin still shines. People are cooking stuff, winning stuff, saying stuff.

‘I could knock on the door?’ says Paul. ‘I could go out and call?’

‘But what then?’ says Pauly-Boy. ‘More pain. Terror. Shame. I’d stay right where you are, son. No more shame. Not again.’

‘Stop it,’ says Paul. ‘You won’t get me this time.’

‘All I know,’ says Pauly-Boy, ‘is you’re a sucker for a rhyme.’

And that’s when Pauly-Boy begins, in the voice of Tucker and the guys, to chant the little ditty they made up.

‘They?’ says Pauly-Boy. He breaks off, gets mean. ‘They, son, is a generous call. Wasn’t it you with the punchline – boy of words, after all?’

Now Pauly-Boy is Tucker, Rich and Dave. Tim Liddle too, lower bunk, held face down, while the guys do their trick with the Westbank College hockey stick.

‘Stop! Stop!’ Paul jumps up. Off the lounge. Down the hall.

‘That’s it, son! On your feet. Just don’t pretend, Paul, to be asleep!’

On the kid’s front porch, Paul catches his breath. The door’s ajar, he takes a step. His foot hits the box. He looks down, sees the knife. Paul takes the knife in hand. Steps inside. Goes up the stairs.

What Paul sees:

Dommy King hunched over, in between the kid’s legs. Her arms are tied above her head, there’s a whole lemon in her mouth, she’s very still, she doesn’t move. There’s a large gash on her head, the blood comes thick down, and Dommy King is working, and while he works he sings:

He’ll slit your gal from throat to thigh
(You stole my wife, you fuck)
And when old Dommy King is done
He’ll stuff her like a duck!

And Ainsley just lies there.

And there’s a piglet? Who is snoring?

And Paul raises the knife.

And Dommy King sings.

And Paul brings the knife down.

And now it’s Pauly-Boy, who screams.


And it’s Andrew Bordacelli who makes the six o’clock news. And The Gab the following evening. And Tonight Tonight the night after that. It’s this last program that Paul and Ma are watching, plates of fish fingers and baked beans on their knees, Sally sitting as tall as a hound at their feet. Over visual of the front of the townhouse, of a school photo of Ainsley, of Dommy King being rolled thrashing and swearing into the ambulance, Andrew Bordacelli explains his discovery. How he saved his kid’s life.

‘Mine too,’ says Ma. Her eyes don’t leave the screen.


‘That’s enough, son,’ says Andrew. ‘That’s enough, here, that’s enough.’

He prises the knife out of Paul’s bloody hand. And Paul is on his knees, by the pale and groaning King. And Ainsley just lies there. And Pauly-Boy, wherever he is now, he cries and cries and cries. And Andrew Bordacelli sees the piglet, picks it up, drops it into Paul’s lap. Takes Ainsley in his arms. Carries daughter, down the stairs.

Artwork by Jacob Rolfe.


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Ashleigh Synnott lives in Sydney. Her stories, poems and essays have appeared in print and online in publications such as Southerly, Overland, Meanjin, The Long Paddock, Antipodes and Award-Winning Australian Stories. She is the author of Monster, forthcoming (2021), Puncher and Wattmann.

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